Justin Hilliard2

Mailbag: Summer sessions, Shamrock Series, point-spreads and more


Another spirited mailbag. I especially enjoy seeing your answers in the comments, hopefully these live up to your own.

Let us begin.

mediocrebob: With the new rules regarding summer workouts, how involved are the coaches right now and do these workouts give the incoming freshman a better opportunity to get a feel for the next level? Do these workouts benefit offensive skill players more than say a Nyles Morgan?

The tweak in rules is a pretty big deal, and probably hasn’t been talked about enough. While Kelly has only discussed what the offensive coaches are doing to take advantage of the ability to work on the playbook and football specific skills (no using actual footballs), Kelly said the team is handling the workouts like the NFL’s OTAs (Organized Team Activities), and offensively, the team is reinstalling the offense during the summer, getting them into fall camp ahead of schedule.

Of course, a reinstall is probably more crucial on defense, as Brian VanGorder used the 15 spring practices to initially install the new system. For Nyles Morgan, who wasn’t a part of spring football, this is a crucial time for his development. And the opportunity to work with his defensive coaches, not just Paul Longo and his staff, is key.

Looking for a good tidbit on Morgan understanding his opportunity? He was on campus and spotted during the Irish Invasion, looking physically impressive for an incoming freshman.


johngaltisspeaking: Will we see a QB carousel with Zaire and Golson this season or are we doing to see one QB take the reins? Also while Golson’s play has been the best in BK tenure it seems that the up speed Oregon style offense was never run. Is BK trying to run more of a Oregon style offense or Auburn Offense ? I would love to know exactly what type offense he is going to install this year.

Carousel might not be the right term, but I fully expect Zaire to see the field early for the Irish, getting him his first taste of college football on Notre Dame’s terms, not in an emergency situation.

As for the Irish offense with Golson, I spent some time writing about it here. But I don’t think you’re going to see Oregon’s offense or Gus Malzahn’s offense. But you will see Brian Kelly’s spread offense, the first time they’ve been able to run it to his liking since he’s been in South Bend.


notredameirish1980: Your prediction: After the Barnett flip, will ND pass on a QB this year given that they probably return 3 scholarship QB’s next season, two with multiple years of eligibility, and concentrate on getting the RKG for 2016? 

While Barnett’s decommitment hurt, I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as others are making it out to be. While some worry that 2014 might be Golson’s final season in South Bend, I have a hard time understanding the logic behind that decision. And with two other quarterbacks with four full seasons of eligibility, it’s far from a NEED position.

That being said, the staff has made additional offers, though Travis Waller’s looking more and more destined for Oregon and not Notre Dame after it looked like he was trending Irish.

But if you’re looking for a 2015 quarterback that ND is targeting? Start looking at some of the committed prospects. Everett Golson wasn’t on anybody’s radar when he was a long-time North Carolina commit. And Gunner Kiel was a pipedream between his commitments to Indiana and LSU.

Weird things will happen. Probably the best thing to happen to the Irish was Barnett flaking out in June, not January.


rocket1988: Do you see the addition of home and homes with SEC teams being the death of Shamrock Series games? And top three cities you’d like to see a one off game in?

No way. I think the Shamrock Series is here to stay and will be a part of Notre Dame’s scheduling plans for a long time. Upcoming games in Indy, Fenway Park, and back to the Alamodome have Notre Dame locked in through 2016.

The home-and-home with Georgia was more about getting the Irish into the state and SEC, finding a top-shelf SEC program that also wasn’t morally or academically bankrupt.

But since you asked, here are my top three cities for a Shamrock Series game?

1) San Diego: Getting a game in Petco Park and into the southern-most part of Southern California would be a ton of fun. And the venue can’t be beat.

2) “South Florida:” (Yes, I know that’s not a city…) Getting ND into an interesting game in the talent-rich South Florida area should be on the agenda… especially to erase the last appearance in the Miami area. Staying on the baseball theme, maybe playing in the Marlins new stadium?

3) Vancouver: This might be outside of the box, but how about a game in Vancouver’s BC Place? The stadium fits 54,000 for football, takes Notre Dame into the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and could be an awesome game against someone like Washington. (Plus we could eat lots of salmon.)


simmel65: I have always loved how Notre Dame plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but are we getting to the point where that might be counterproductive? Look at Alabama’s schedule. They always have a bye or a patsy before a big game. Our schedule is so dependent on everyone else’s, that it seems like we are going to end up stacking a ton of solid teams up in a row which just may end up keeping us out of the playoffs. Thoughts?

Welcome to life as college football’s lone (major) independent. Notre Dame needs to play a tougher schedule to get into the final four spots without a conference title to win. But expect to see some of those cupcakes erased from schedules as the Big Ten goes to nine conference games and schools start to miss out on an opportunity to get into the playoff based on strength of schedule.

Do some upcoming Notre Dame schedules look too tough? Sure. But the 2012 schedule looked to be the toughest on paper in the country and Notre Dame walked through that just fine.


ndrocks2: Surprised Koyack is getting preseason mentions as one of best TE’s? Is it based on how we use the position or is he the real deal just buried on depth chart in the past?

Koyack should be on the Mackey Award watch list, if only because every Notre Dame starting tight end over the last decade has at least been a semifinalist for the award. Sure, it’s mostly based on the reputation of Irish tight ends putting up big seasons, but also because Koyack is a 6-foot-5, 261-pound monster who is going to be counted on to play a major role in the Irish offense.

I think Koyack is poised for a big season. He’s got to clean up some of the drops and mental mistakes he’s made, but he’s going to be one of the key pieces to Notre Dame’s offense.


onward2victory: Keith, if you were a betting man, which of the Golden Nugget ND spreads do you like most? Is FSU really 24 points better than us?!?

At this point in the year, who knows what’s going to happen. But a look at Florida State versus the competition last year, and you get an idea as to why the point spread is so inflated.

As for the early lines — and no, I’m no longer a betting man (Thanks Bush & Leinart) — no line was released for the Rice game, but I’d expect the Irish to be around a 10-point favorite against a sneaky Owls team that won 10 games last year.

But other than that, Notre Dame is favored in every game except Stanford (ND’s a +6 home dog), The Seminoles (+24), at Arizona State (+4.5) and visiting USC, getting a surprising 10 points.

As a betting man, I’d feel pretty good about hitting the Arizona State and USC games. Taylor Kelly should lead a pretty prolific offense, but the Sun Devils are a mess on defense. As for USC, Notre Dame’s won three of four against the Trojans and I’m not seeing how giving 10 points makes a bunch of sense for Steve Sarkisian’s first Trojan squad.


iamgolden4life: Keith, I wondering if we were to land Hilliard July 2 if you will do an article on who the most likely to follow him to South Bend. I also know of course we may miss on him, but he looks very happy and comfortable in the pics of him I’ve seen while visiting ND.

Hilliard will announce his college choice on July 2, as will Jashon Cornell. It sounds like it’ll be a package deal, which answers your question. Hilliard and Cornell have struck an unlikely friendship, two elite defensive prospects that want to play football together in college.

Most feel like this is Ohio State’s recruitment to lose. But I still feel like Notre Dame is in a good place to win these two, a gigantic swing in recruiting. (Wide receiver Myles Boykin will announce on the 2nd as well, making my travel day home to Minnesota a fairly hectic one.)

As for Hilliard, I’m just ready for his recruitment to end. Between he and Cornell trolling multiple fanbases on Twitter, it’s hard to get angry at a kid who is just trying his best to enjoy a process grown-up football fans ruined, but Notre Dame’s staff have done everything you could ask from them.

I pointed it out last week, but Hilliard’s comments on Notre Dame — and the comfort he feels with the players and what the school does academically for him — and the perfect comments you want to hear from an Irish recruit. If Notre Dame doesn’t land him? He just didn’t want it.

Either way, wish the kid well and understand why Brian Kelly says Notre Dame’s not for everyone and they often have to shop from a different aisle.


onward2victory: In the spirit of pure speculation, which opposing QB that ND will face would start over Golson if that QB was Irish?

Good question. Let’s just put Jameis Winston here for now, as the returning Heisman Trophy winner is the perfect quarterback for Brian Kelly’s offense. Other than that, I think the only other QB on this list would be Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, and that’d be a heckuva competition between the two.


ndtod: Not football related, but WTH. Played the Warren course recently and rumor is a big tournament coming there in 2019 or 2020. Prior to that, school considering building villas or cottages on the course. True? What say you?

I have not heard this rumor, but I’m assuming something like the US Amateur or the Women’s Am? And if so — AWESOME.

I highly doubt many have played the Warren Course more than me, as I spent about five days a week wandering those fairways (let’s be honest, a lot of rough, too) as a student in the course’s opening years. It’s a wonderful track that’s only getting better with age, and getting one of the early Coore-Crenshaw designs was a pretty impressive move by Notre Dame brass.

I’d be shocked if there was ever a plan to build condos or villas on the course. I don’t know where they would fit and the property isn’t outfitted for roads or a housing development like some of the other golf course developments from the 1980s and 90s.

But thanks for the update on the course. And the reminder to bring my sticks next time I’m in South Bend.

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.